The Canadian Red Cross has set up a last-resort shelter should evacuees from Manitoba First Nations facing wildfires exceed hotel space in Winnipeg and Brandon.
The 280-bed centre at the University of Winnipeg’s Axworthy Health & RecPlex is non-operational and not yet needed, but is on standby, Red Cross spokesperson Jason Small said Thursday.
"This is not ideal, shelters are never ideal, we really hope we don’t need to use this."
Single cots and sets for families will be organized to keep six feet of social distance between them, and should the need arise, there’s enough space to double the number of berths, the Red Cross said. Shower and bathroom facilities, along with representatives on standby to provide mental health referrals for anyone experiencing a crisis, will be made available.
Funding for Red Cross emergency shelters comes from the federal level (this time, specifically from Indigenous Services Canada). A similar shelter was set up in Winnipeg during the ice storm response in October 2019, but it was not put into use.
"It’s going to be like shelters we’ve done in the past, but with extra steps for COVID," Small said.
There are 154 fires still burning throughout Manitoba, and earlier this week, residents with serious health priorities from Tataskweyak Cree Nation were transported out of the area due to a 16,000-acre wildfire closing in.
Smoke making its way to Winnipeg and across the province isn’t going away any time soon, especially considering uniquely dry conditions across the province, Environment and Climate Change Canada warning preparedness meteorologist Natalie Hasell said.
"We will be lucky if we get more wind from the south, so that the lows and highs place themselves so that the winds are blowing in the right direction... for Winnipeg, but that just means other people will get the smoke instead of us," she said.
"We don't see a great amount of precipitation in the forecast for the next while, and even on days where we do see precipitation, that doesn't mean it'll reach the ground or be significant."
In the last month, the number of wildfires creating smoky conditions have "exploded," with many of the blazes burning for weeks on end.
Hasell said even outside of groups especially vulnerable to damage caused by smoke inhalation, people should take extra steps to self-monitor if they’re outdoors for extended periods of time.
"Everyone is affected by smoke, and we don't always know how," she said. "So it might not be directly related to a scratchy nose or watery eyes or trouble breathing, it could actually be causing things like anxiety or stress or depression to spike."
Malak Abas is a reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press.